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Friday, April 30, 2010

Mysteries Yet Again: Amateur Sleuths

Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple was one. So was Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe. Amateur sleuths such as these abound in mysteries and have been around since Edgar Alan Poe created one of the first amateur detectives, C. Auguste Dupin. He appeared in Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Amateur sleuths can be cooks, newspaper reporters, antique appraisers, almost any occupation you can imagine. They tend to find themselves caught up in mysteries by chance, cooperate with authorities, but often viewed by the police as a nuisance.

If you haven’t met the amateur sleuths, here are a few of their most recent adventures you might want to sample:

Moon Spinners by Sally Goldenbaum (Izzy Chambers, proprietor of the Seaside Knitting Studio)

Laughed ‘Til He Died by Carolyn Hart (mystery book store owner Annie Darling and husband Max)

The Big Steal by Emyl Jenkins (antiques appraiser Sterling Glass)

The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith (Botswana’s only female detective Precious Ramotswe)

Death of a Trophy Wife by Laura Levine (L.A. freelance writer Jaine Austen)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Still More Mysteries: The Police Procedural

Whether you grew up watching “Dragnet,” “The Untouchables” and “Kojak” or are a fan of “CSI Miami” and “The Wire,” you certainly recognize the police procedural on film. Oddly enough, the print versions of the mystery subgenre became popular after World War II as a result of films such as “Naked City” and “The Street With No Name,” which tried to depict authentic police work and were made with the cooperation of the boys in blue.

Librarian Nancy Pearl, the author of Book Lust and a regular commentator on NPR’s “Morning Edition” offers these recommendations for some classic police procedurals in print:

The Big Bad City by Ed McBain

Because of the Cats by Nicholas Freeling

The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh

The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman

Until Proven Guilty by J.A. Jance

Friday, April 23, 2010

More Mysteries: Legal Thrillers

There are a variety of mystery subgenres – from cozy to police procedural, techno-thriller to medical mystery – and of course legal thrillers. When I finally decided to try mysteries, it was legal thrillers by writers like John Scott Turow that first caught my fancy. Here is one writer’s definition of the genre:

“A legal thriller . . . usually reveals whodunit at the beginning or makes it clear that it doesn't matter whodunit so much as whether he or she will get caught. The plot that follows focuses on whether or not justice shall prevail. Thrillers by definition have no mystery qualities. When you read a thriller, you expect to be thrilled. When you read a mystery, you expect to be puzzled and then pleasantly surprised.”

In addition to Grisham and Turow some lesser-known writers are just as good at tackling this subgenre. Here are a few titles from a “Best Legal Thrillers” list:

The Quiet Game by Greg Iles

Degree of Guilt by Richard North Patterson

Wild Justice by Phillip Margolin

The Judge by Steve Martini

Criminal Intent by Sheldon Siegel

Image is in public domain.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

On Mysteries

I have to admit I’ve never been much of a mystery reader. Perhaps I’m just too impatient. I often don’t like wading through a lot of red herrings to find out whodunit. Lately, however, I’ve found some mysteries that engage me – Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire come to mind. I’m waiting anxiously for his last book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest due out soon in the U.S.

There are other mystery writers that I have happened upon and enjoyed immensely. Laurie King's The Beekeeper’s Apprentice introduced me to the fictional Mary Russell, an assistant to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes turns out not to be the misogynist that his creator Conan Doyle made him out to be. In later books in the series, Russell and Holmes marry. King’s newest in the series is The God of the Hive.

I discovered Lisa Scottoline after she appeared at a library event. I’ve been a fan of her sleuths Benedetta “Bennie” Rosata and Mary diNunzio ever since. Whereas Larsson’s and King’s mysteries often have a serious edge, Scottoline’s mysteries, such as Killer Smile and Dead Ringer, are just plain fun – and they feature lots of Italian pasta!

Years ago I picked up a book called The Devil’s Teardrop by Jeffrey Deaver because it was set in Washington, D.C. I couldn’t put it down. It opens on New Year’s Eve with a grisly machine gun attack at the Dupont Circle Metro. The mayor receives a note that the attacks will continue every four hours until midnight unless a $20 million ransom is paid. While Deaver’s violence can be a bit graphic, I’ve tried to read almost everything he has written, including his Lincoln Rhyme novels. Denzel Washington played the quadriplegic sleuth in a film version of Deaver’s The Bone Collector.

From Larsson’s dark characters to Deaver’s lightning plots, I guess I enjoy a good mystery now and then, after all.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Will You Miss Us If We’re Gone?

Writing in “The Huffington Post,” Art Brodsky expressed what many library professionals across the country are feeling – public libraries are in trouble. ("Our Public Library Lifeline Is Fraying. We'll Be Sorry When It Snaps," April 11, 2010 )

Basically, during an economic downturn as severe as this, towns, cities, counties and states across the nation have to make difficult decisions. How does a jurisdiction measure the value of the public library when it has to provide schools, police, fire, transportation, road repair and other essential services to its taxpayers?

Brodsky explains the issue well:

“One problem for libraries in some jurisdictions is that they don't fit squarely into any one policymaker's domain, like public safety or a school system. Libraries serve a range of purposes - they help teach children to read, they help students work on projects, they provide meeting space for tutoring, they provide Internet access. They serve students, seniors, immigrants. They provide assistance to the unemployed. Libraries combine education, workforce development, socialization, recreation. But they aren't the school board, or a social services agency, and so generally get buried in the larger budgets.”

Certainly, the information landscape has changed and libraries are no longer just repositories for books, but they continue to be a reliable source for information. They continue to be archival keepers of our past. They continue to support the right of individuals to make informed decisions.

Those of us who work in public libraries cannot imagine a world without them. Can you?

Image courtesy of the American Library Association.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Five Things You Didn’t Know About Your Public Library

To celebrate National Library Week, here are a few of the special services your local library offers.

1. Nationwide Borrowing
If the Fairfax County Public Library doesn’t own a book or other material, we can try to find it for you at public, academic and special libraries across the U.S. through our InterLibrary Loan Service.

2. Almost Late Notices
If you own a library card, but we don’t have your e-mail address, just fill out a Library Information Change Form. If you don’t have a library card, just give us your e-mail address when you apply. We will e-mail you a notice three days before books or materials are due. We will also e-mail you when material you placed on hold is due, or if material is overdue. (Then, unfortunately, you would owe us a fine.)

3. More Room Than Starbucks
Tired of waiting for table space at your favorite coffee house? Just pack up your laptop and trek over to your nearest library branch for free wireless access.

4. Magazines, Newspapers and More
The library offers access to online full-text articles in hundreds of magazines and newspapers, as well as eBooks, eAudiobooks, career information, college entry and professional practice tests and more. We pay for these databases, so you don’t have to. All you need is your library card.

5. Talking Books for Seniors and the Disabled
Do you have a friend or relative who has trouble reading or is homebound? A free service from the National Library Service will lend recorded materials to anyone who is unable to read or use standard printed materials as a result of temporary or permanent visual or physical impairment. Special equipment is loaned to play the recorded materials. Call the Access Services branch at 703-324-8380 or TTY 703-324-8365 for more information.

NEXT: Will You Miss Us If We’re Gone?

Image courtesy of the American Library Association.

Friday, April 09, 2010

The Future of Libraries

With National Library Week (April 11-17) just around the corner, it seems appropriate that a recent Mental Floss blogger asked "What Does the Future Hold for Libraries?" (April 5, 2010). One of blogger Ransom Riggs’ basic questions was: when budgets are scarce should libraries be buying computers or books? He was curious how often people go to libraries and how they use them. “I’ll always choose books over computers, because computers become obsolete, and books do not,” he writes. “A well-bound hardback can last a hundred years or more. How long will a computer last?”

Apparently the 65-plus individuals who posted comments agree. Here’s a sampling:

“I read fast and I hate clutter, so the library is perfect for me. I check out a pile of books a few times a month. I don’t have to pay for them (except through my property taxes), and when I’ve read them, I don’t have to store them. I LOVE the library.”

“My kids and I went to the library Friday, actually. We go to look for/check out books. For me, one of the great joys and advantages of a library is shelf-reading. I’ll look up a book I’ve heard about, go to that section of the library, and read the titles of other books in that section. When something catches my eye, I check it out.”

“The library here is still very popular. This area is slowly recovering but still has a lot of unemployment. I have talked to a lot of people who still take their kids there as it is a fun trip, they get to take something home, and the parents can afford it. Free is good.”

NEXT: Five Things You Don’t Know About Your Public Library.

Image courtesy of the American Library Association.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Ask a Librarian – At the Library of Congress

The library discontinued its Ask a Librarian virtual reference service in December due to budget cuts. But the Library of Congress has stepped in to provide help with research questions by e-mail for Fairfax County residents. To see what subject matters Library of Congress librarians can address, visit the Ask A Librarian page. Library of Congress librarians can answer reference or research questions. If your question is specific to services at Fairfax County Public Library please visit a branch or look on our Web site. We also have a frequently asked questions page that may answer your question.

Mary Mulrenan
Fairfax County Public Library

Image is public domain.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Fiction: My Top 10 Books

Like many attracted to libraries, I’m a reader. About 20 years ago, I joined my first book discussion group and I have never looked back. At present, I’m in two. I often think about the books I have enjoyed most in the past decade and want to read again. Here’s my list (not in any order):

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

All Aunt Hagar’s Children by Edward P. Jones

If you are ready for a book group, the library offers many opportunities. Check our online calendar of events for current listings. For some book suggestions, check out Booklists for Adults and Web Sites for Readers on the library’s Web site.

- Pat